Beginnings are the worst.
Just ask the guys muscling for position at the starting line of a race; all elbows and hip checks and ankles getting stomped on. Ask the folks dragging themselves out of bed for a pre-dawn workout, fighting against the gravitational pull of the singularity created by a warm bed. Ask the authors, staring at the terrible white expanse of the blank first page.
The beginning of any endeavor is the worst, because each step is a battle. Every inch of ground is an inch that must be won not only from the enemy (your competitors, the weights you’ll lift, the miles you’ll run, the white space you’ll reclaim in ink) but also from your own momentum — momentum that wants to let you slide to the back of the pack, stay in bed, watch TV… do ANYTHING but fight that fight.
So it goes with writing.
I’ve just started a second novel, and MAN is it tempting not to do it. As much as I’m excited about the prospect of a new project, I know that for the few months of fun in drafting I’ll have the long slog of a better part of a year or more in edits ahead. Then, there’s the story itself. I don’t know for entirely sure where it’s going yet. I’ve got some moments and ideas mapped, but it’s still a lump of clay. It needs shaping. The result is that each foray into this new world feels a bit like a fish flopping around on a riverbank: There’s water just over there, just at the edge of vision, and if I can just get there, if I can just find the flow, everything will be okay. Problem is, a fish is designed for swimming, slicing through the water, carving liquid paths in currents and bubbles… the movement comes out as herky-jerky twitching on land, and I can’t even tell if it’s moving me closer to my goal or not.
I’m also pretty sure I’m terrible at writing beginnings anyway. Every word that goes on the page feels like needless exposition; clunky, unnecessary, and obtrusive, like riding an elephant to work. Any attempt at action takes a hard left with an explanation of who this person is, what the place looks like, why it’s even going on… end result? The 3000 words or so I’ve written so far feel positively glacial. My sneaking suspicion is that it’s crap, and I should probably pack this thing in, cut my losses, and do something more productive with my time.
Much as the drafting is frustrating, it is freeing: the first draft is not constrained by the need to be perfect or even good. It doesn’t even have to hang together; it can have unformed limbs, elbows that bend the wrong way, or a vestigial tail. All that crap — the characters that randomly appear and disappear throughout the narrative, the note that you forgot to plant earlier in the story, the the gobs and gobs of exposition that feels like so many monster trucks spinning their wheels, spraying mud all over the walls — can be fixed when the narrative surgery begins, in the edit.
The draft is raw, bleeding genesis, messy and gory, staining the earth red in its wake. (Give me Genesis!)
The draft is rainbows spewing from the netherparts of unicorns, coloring the sky with a riot of sound and fury. It’s a newborn eagle spreading its wings for the first time after its mother boots it out of the nest: nervous at first, stumbling over its own tangle of talons and beak, but then — then! — the wind catches its wings and it soars. The story creates its own momentum and, once tilted over the edge, it rolls and tumbles and picks up crumbs and absorbs stray cats and it barrels down the hill, absorbing everything in its path.
At least, that’s how I think it will be. I’ve only done this once before, after all. But having done it once, the inertia is that much easier to break; the fear of failure is that much easier to overcome.
The first draft is awesome.
The first draft is awful.
The starting is the hardest part, but the good news is, as long as you keep your momentum up, you only have to start once.